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Pregame primer: Caps winning with and without dynamic duo

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Pregame primer: Caps winning with and without dynamic duo

Shortly after being hired as head coach of the Capitals, Barry Trotz began watching game tapes of the way his new team played in the final 35 games of last season. One game per day was about all that he could digest.

And what stood out to him during those days in front of his TV?

“A very big team, but you didn’t feel like they always played big,” Trotz said. “Size is an asset and I thought we could play better there. I also thought they only wanted to play one way. You’ve got to win games differently and we talked about doing that and creating ourselves an identity.”

Before this season the Capitals’ identity was rooted in their two stars forwards, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But opponents learned a very simple strategy when facing the Caps. You stop Ovechkin and Backstrom, you stop Washington.

“Our record was horrendous, to say the least,” Trotz said. “This year we won many times without either one getting a point.”

He’s right. Before this season the Capitals were 21-61-15 in the regular season and 3-11 in the playoffs in games when when Ovechkin and Backstrom were held without a point.

Under Trotz, the Caps went 11-8-3 in the regular season and are 2-1 in the playoffs when their dynamic duo is held off the scoresheet, including Monday night’s 1-0 win in Game 3 against the Rangers, when Jay Beagle provided the game’s only offense.

“In the first 20 games we were sitting about a game over .500 [9-8-3] and they were saying, ‘When we did this the other way it was a lot easier,’” Trotz recalled. “And then they started winning. We’d get a point every night.”

The Caps finished sixth in the conference and ninth in the league in hits [2,335] and before long, opposing teams began describing them as a tougher team to play against than ever before.

“I would say heavy,” Trotz said when asked to describe his team’s new identity. “We’re a big team so we want to be heavy on the puck. If we can get to you and separate you from the puck we want to do that. And we can skate pretty well, too. Our speed is still in the top third in the league.”

Changes for New York? While there are no personnel changes expected for the Rangers in Game 4, there may be a few different line combinations.

With the top line of Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Marty St. Louis struggling to find the back of the net [they’ve combined for one goal in the first three games] coach Alain Vigneault could move Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider or Dominic Moore up in the lineup. Hayes saw some time with the top line in place of St. Louis in the third period of Game 3.

“As a coach you’ve got to do what you feel is best for your team,” Vigneault said, “and if at some point I feel any changes need to be made for the benefit of the team I’ll make them.”

“We’ve had some real good looks,” Vigneault said, referring to the Rangers’ 69 attempts at the net in Game 3, 30 of which were stopped by Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “Our execution has been a fraction of a second off. I’m going to bet that our execution can be better and it has to be better tonight. Everybody understands the importance of tonight’s game and we’re ready for it.” 

MORE CAPITALS: What's with Ovechkin and those smelling salts?

Here are projected lineups for Game 4:

CAPITALS

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Joel Ward

Marcus Johnasson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Jason Chimera

Andre Burakovsky – Jay Beagle – Troy Brouwer

Curtis Glencross – Brooks Laich – Tom Wilson

Defense pairings

Brooks Orpik – John Carlson

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Tim Gleason – Mike Green

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby – Justin Peters

Scratches: C Michael Latta, D Dmitry Orlov

Injuries: Eric Fehr [upper body, day-to-day]

RANGERS

Forward lines

Rick Nash – Derrick Brassard – Marty St. Louis

Chris Kreider – Derek Stepan – J.T. Miller

Carl Hagelin – Kevin Hayes – Jesper Fast

James Sheppard – Dominic Moore – Tanner Glass

Defense pairings

Ryan McDonagh – Dan Girardi

Marc Staal – Kevin Klein

Keith Yandle – Dan Boyle

Goaltenders

Henrik Lundqvist – Cam Talbot

Scratches: D Matt Hunwick, D Chris Summers

Injuries: Mats Zuccarello [head, indefinite]

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T.J. Oshie a game-time decision, but will almost certainly be in the lineup against the Red Wings

T.J. Oshie a game-time decision, but will almost certainly be in the lineup against the Red Wings

The Capitals return home after a three-game road swing to host the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Washington). Caps fans may not get to see Tom Wilson, who will be out with an upper-body injury, but there are still plenty of things to watch as the Caps try to improve to 2-0 against Detroit this season.

Here are four things to watch on Tuesday.

Oshie is back

Todd Reirden called T.J. Oshie a game-time decision, but he certainly looked and was treated like a player who would be in the lineup for Tuesday’s game. Oshie – who has been out with a concussion since Nov. 14 – will be back in the lineup on Tuesday just one day after returning to practice. But he is not going to be eased back in. Oshie moves right to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and also back onto the top unit of the power play.

Oshie suffered a concussion last season after a hit from San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton and really seemed to struggle when he got back into the lineup. He was asked on Monday what he learned from that experience that can prepare him for what he will face on Tuesday.

“You expect the game to feel a little fast when you get back,” Oshie said. “You expect your game shape to not be there, the reads and the maximal effort that you get in battles and back-checking situations or even forechecking situations. It's just hard to simulate that when you're out there skating around cones and stopping on lines.”

With Oshie back in, here is what the lines looked like at Tuesday’s morning skate:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson – Lars Eller – Devante Smith-Pelly
Travis Boyd – Nic Dowd – Dmitrij Jaskin

Forward Andre Burakovsky is a surprise scratch for the game. Points have been hard to come by for the 23-year-old forward who has just five goals and eight points in 29 games.

How does Bowey look?

Madison Bowey had to be helped off the ice during morning skate and was not putting any weight on his left leg. He slowly made his way off the ice and to the locker room, but returned soon after and jumped right back into the drills. I spoke to him after the skate and he said he took a shot off the inside of his leg, but he was fine and would be good to go for the game.

The team also did not seem concerned as Jonas Siegenthaler stayed on the ice after the skate to get extra work with the scratches. It certainly appears like Bowey is fine, but he may feel differently while trying to keep up with a speedy Red Wings team. How he plays and how that left leg looks is certainly something that bears watching.

Power boost

The Caps’ power play unit was so dominant to start the season, but it has gone cold recently and now it has fallen all the way to seventh in the NHL. Washington has not scored a power play goal in three straight games and has only three goals in its last 24 opportunities (12.5-percent).

The return of Oshie should provide a boost to that unit as Todd Reirden mentioned on Monday.

“He's a special player in all aspects of the game, but certainly in the power play for us in that diamond spot,” Reirden said. “He does a really good job on the entries in terms of controlled entries. When we do have to dump pucks in, he's great on recoveries. His work ethic and instincts to be able to win puck battles, I just think in increases our whole intensity of the way our power play recovers pucks and then obviously his ability to get open and just create spots for Nick or Evgeny to find him in that diamond area as we call it for the ability to finish from the middle of the ice there.”

Familiar foes

Detroit and Washington last met on Nov. 23, a game that resulted in a 3-1 win for the Caps. What was rapidly turning into a lackluster performance was saved by Wilson who scored in the second period to tie the game at 1. Wilson also added an assist in the third period. 

The Caps were outshot 32-20, but Braden Holtby turned in a strong performance to keep Detroit out of the net for the final two periods of the game.

The Red Wings will be playing the second leg of a back-to-back Tuesday meaning Washington is likely to see Jonathan Bernier in net again – just as they did on Nov. 23 – after Jimmy Howard started on Monday. Bernier could only save 17 of the 20 shots he faced, but he won’t have to worry about Wilson on Tuesday.

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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

After all the pomp and circumstance of the Capitals’ banner raising to start the season was over, a hockey game still needed to be played. That night, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov took their familiar spots on the top line. On their right, was Caps forward Brett Connolly who had earned a chance to compete for that top spot during Tom Wilson’s suspension.

That night was a very early indication to Connolly that things were going to be different this season. Todd Reirden is not Barry Trotz.

Connolly first signed with Washington in 2016. A cast off of the Boston Bruins as they did not offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a restricted free agent, Connolly needed a team to take a chance on him. The Caps did, signing him to a one-year deal worth $850,000. Connolly responded with 15 goals and 23 points for Washington, earning him a new two-year, $3 million contract to stick around.

Despite that, however, Connolly never seemed to gain the full trust of head coach Barry Trotz. Connolly averaged just 12:00 worth of ice time per game last season over 70 games.

“Obvioulsy the last couple years you'd like to play a little more, but I knew that with the way that he was coaching and the way Barry was handling me, that was going to be my role for that,” Connolly said. “I took pride it that last year, but this year's a little different.”

Though Connolly’s stay on the top line was brief, he is averaging over two minutes more of ice time per game than last season and it is clear Reirden envisioned him having an increased role.

“I liked how he came into camp,” Reirden said. “I think we had good discussions about a plan for him going into the year. There was room for growth still in his game and he's still a young player.”

“[Reirden] has been really good with me and making sure my minutes are a little higher,” Connolly said. “Obviously, you've still got to earn that, but he's put me in situations to succeed. It's been nice to deliver on that a little bit.”

In just 29 games this season, Connolly has five goals and 18 points. His 13 assists sit just three shy of his career high set in 2015-16 over the course of 71 games. He is currently on pace for a 50-point season which would shatter his previous career high of 27.

Increased playing time should naturally result in increased production, but Connolly has not been a passenger getting carried by better teammates. He has played all through the lineup and keeps producing regardless of the situation.

“There's a lot more trust in me to play in all situations and move up and down the lineup,” Connolly said. “I've played all over the lineup which is nice. It's nice to know that when you're playing well you can be moved up at any time. It's been a really positive change for me and I'm happy that I could deliver a little bit and play well when I am given those opportunities.”

In 2017, Connolly was a healthy scratch for six of the team’s seven playoff games. Trotz elected to go with seven defensemen in the lineup, something he had not done the entire season, rather than dress Connolly.

Reirden has taken a different approach this season and it is paying dividends both for the player and the team.

“He's been really important part of us getting through these injuries because we've used him on the power play in different areas as well,” Reirden said. “I think he's had a strong season and not surprised to see that his numbers are following along, but to me it started with his commitment this summer and then to start the year, the confidence he had and the kind of belief in using him in a different way than maybe he's been used in the past that he could generate some higher numbers.”

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